A No-Wynn Situation

Congressman Suffers Stunning Political Downfall

Posted February 13, 2008 at 6:26pm

Even before Rep. Albert Wynn’s (D-Md.) primary defeat was written on his tired face as he emerged to talk to supporters late Tuesday night, it may have been written on his cake.

Indeed, it seemed to be with more of a sense of finality than celebration that the Congressman’s supporters had written “Thank you for your many years of service to the people of the 4th Congressional District” on the “victory

party” cake that was being served.

Now that Wynn has suffered a devastating 25-point defeat at the hands of nonprofit executive Donna Edwards (D), he and his partisans are left to pick up the pieces — literally and figuratively.

“I don’t really have any postgame analysis,” Wynn told reporters after conceding the election. “The deed is done. I think the only thing that remains is to support the winner.”

Still, it was a stunning and ignoble defeat for one of Maryland’s true powerbrokers, a man who had glided to re-election for most of his political career. What went wrong?

Five years ago, Wynn was on top of the world — the king of Prince George’s County, the affluent and dynamic majority-black jurisdiction that borders Washington, D.C.

In the 2002 election, he had a hand in electing seven of the nine members of the Prince George’s County Council, and was also a close ally of the newly elected county executive, Jack Johnson (D). At Johnson’s inauguration, Wynn unabashedly referred to the man who was taking the reins of a large and powerful local government as “my guy.”

At the same time, Wynn enjoyed representing a swath of the even more affluent, and whiter, Montgomery County, where voters revere good government and clean politics.

As the 2004 election approached, a cocky Wynn had to defuse rumors that he was thinking of challenging popular Sen. Barbara Mikulski in the upcoming Democratic primary. Still, it was widely assumed that he was preparing to run for a Senate seat whenever there was a vacancy.

In March 2005, when then-Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D) announced that he would not seek a record-breaking sixth term, Wynn, like most of his Congressional colleagues from the Free State, announced that he’d take a close look at the race. But after a weekend of deliberating, Wynn quickly put out the word that he would not be running for the Senate after all. One possible explanation: The quick entry into the race by former NAACP President Kweisi Mfume (D). Another: Wynn’s campaign treasury had a lot less money in it than most other Maryland Democratic Members.

At that point, very few Maryland political insiders had heard the name Donna Edwards. But she was building a reputation as a fighter and community organizer. While most of Prince George’s County’s civic leaders, including Wynn, rushed to embrace the massive National Harbor development taking place along the Potomac River, Edwards, raised serious questions about its size and scope, about who would benefit from the development — and who would get hurt.

By the time she went public with her plans to challenge Wynn just three months before the September 2006 primary, Edwards had built up a small but dedicated following among local activists and environmentalists. But no one imagined she could beat Wynn.

Still, Edwards ran an energetic campaign. Thanks to the Internet, she got some national attention with her attacks on Wynn’s record, the way he had strayed at times from liberal orthodoxy — particularly for his initial support for using military force in Iraq.

With national liberal groups flexing their muscles, a changing Prince George’s County chafing under some of “Boss Albert’s” hardball tactics, and voters in the Montgomery County portion of the district less than enthralled with some of Wynn’s votes, Edwards fell just 2,800 votes short of upsetting Wynn.

The Congressman and his confidantes went into panic mode. Even though an easy win in the 2006 general election was guaranteed, he immediately hired a pollster. He lost weight. He began paying more attention to the home front. He became a visible leader on issues that were palatable to liberal voters, like global warming and the proposal to impeach Vice President Cheney. But by then it may have been too late.

In early 2007, Edwards declared her intention to challenge Wynn again. This time she gave herself a year, rather than three months, to make her case before the voters.

“The campaign lasted longer so we were able to get more and more and more momentum,” said Mike Hamby, Edwards’ field organizer. “Last time I think people knew that they didn’t want Al Wynn. This time I think people knew they wanted Donna Edwards. They were able to get a sense of who she was, what her background was and what her beliefs were and when they saw that they loved her.”

The fact that influential and well-stocked liberal groups like EMILY’s List, the Service Employees International Union and MoveOn.org made a major push for Edwards this time also helped her immeasurably.

On Tuesday, just as in 2006, Wynn lost the Montgomery County precincts in his district by an almost 3-1 margin, which was something of a surprise considering how much time the Congressman spent trying to reconnect with the voters there. But Wynn this time was unable to make up the vote difference in his Prince George’s County stronghold, losing by 14 points in the Prince George’s precincts.

Perhaps it was the icy weather, but despite Wynn’s confident predictions upon his arrival at his election night headquarters at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 26 union hall in Lanham, the mood was never particularly cheery. With polls being kept open an extra hour and a half across the state because of inclement weather, supporters didn’t start arriving until close to 9:30 p.m.

By 11 p.m., a few Wynn supporters were already beginning the age-old election night practice of questioning the reported results and coming up with scenarios by which their candidate could still pull out victory. At about the stroke of midnight, a subdued Wynn moved to the podium to inform his supporters that he had called Edwards to concede the race.

While Wynn climbed into the back of a black Lincoln Town Car and left his lightly attended election night party a few minutes after his concession speech, the party that was taking place just three miles away at the Edwards headquarters raged well past 1 a.m.

Even Edwards’ mother, Mary Edwards, stayed up to celebrate the victory that slipped narrowly from her daughter’s grasp last time.

“It was a very close election last time,” said a beaming if somewhat hoarse Edwards, who faces only token Republican opposition in the general election. “We had a much more sophisticated operation, more time, more resources, more volunteers and more people in the field. I certainly knew we had to continue to reach out to every corner of our Congressional district and I think the victory that you observed stretches from one end of the district to the other. It’s sweeping.”

Still, Wynn remains the Congressman for another 10-plus months. He has been in elective office for more than a quarter-century. At the age of 56, he is still a relatively young man.

But when asked Tuesday night what’s next, he answered simply, “I don’t know.”